Scott McQuire’s The Media City

I just finished reading the highly interesting book The Media City by Scott McQuire. It is a philosophical approach to the role of media in the experience of the city. I found two insights worth sharing here.

The first is that McQuire sees media not as a means of representation, but rather as a technology that co-constitutes the experience of the city. In other words, what is interesting is not so much how a movie or tv show represents the city. What is interesting is how media can provide new frames for making sense of the city; how it provides new ways of experiencing the city.

Second, I liked his approach of technology: McQuire is interested in the way in which new technologies are incorporated into everyday life, how they are turned from ‘disembedding technologies’ into embedded media practices: when new technologies are introduced – be it the telegraph or the internet – they are usually seen as disruptive technologies that will ‘annihilate time and space’ and disembed existing social relations. However, usually after a certain period of time, some of these technologies have become so normal that we do not even notice them anymore. They are so embedded in our everyday practice that we simply can’t imagine what life would be without them.

It is the phase in between that is interesting. ‘What may in retrospect seem the logical pathway of future development is not yet inevitable; other possibilities remain open.’ Will these new technologies be applied in a reactionary or in revolutionary way?

When looking at locative media and the experience of the city, we might well be in the ‘in between phase’. There is still a lot of bewilderment and excitement about the technologies. Yet clear practices haven’t emerged, although McQuire is critical about the general direction of innovation. It’s mainly pushed by commercial providers aiming at instant gratification for their customer base. There is less attention for usages that might benefit a more public, collective culture.

Let’s have a more detailed look at what McQuire means when he says that

Rather than treating media as something separate from the city – the medium which ‘represents’ urban phenomena by turning it into an image – I argue that the spatial experience of modern social life emerges through a complex process of co-constitution between architectural structures and urban territories, social practices and media feedback.

McQuire gives several historic examples. For instance he looks at the serial photographs that Marville took in 19th Century Paris before and after Hausmann’s crew had swooshed through the neighborhood. These photos were not meant to be experienced as single objects of art, but rather as a series. ‘The most significant legacy of Marville’s work is the way it registers the transition from individual views to the cumulative knowledge established by the series or the set. … images coalesce into an information flow in which relations between images assume heightened importance.’ McQuire notes that around the same time picture postcards started to become a popular medium as well, and their serial logic could have had an interesting impact on the way we imagine the city:

‘[Postcards] enable the complex reality of the modern city to be reduced to a series of discrete visual units that can be easily manipulated and readily consumed. But even as they pander to a dream for panoptic mastery of the modern city, postcards sow the seeds of its confusion. When points of view multiply so excessively it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in the authority of a master shot or to limit oneself to the stability of a centered perspective. Postcards feed the modern understanding of the city as a fragmented discontinuous environment, essentially unrepresentable except as a series. It is this sense of the city unmoored and in perpetual transformation – which consciously or unconsciously informs metropolitan discourse in the 20th century.’

McQuire sees interesting links between this mental frame of understanding the city and developments in other areas. ‘The process [of Hausmanization] is mapped by the seriality of Marville’s images in which various sites become more or less interchangeable losing their unique identities in favour of the more abstract collective idenitity of the set’. At the same time house numbers started to appear, replacing the individual naming of houses that had been dominant until then with an abstract way of representing individual homes as part of a set. Is there a link with the rise of the mathematical discipline of statistics, with their dominant logic of the set rather than the individual? It started to appear as a way of getting a grasp of society and was adapted in the process of policy making by those in power around the same time. As life and society in general started to become more impersonal, subject to more abstract flows of goods, people, money, so did our experience of the city, and media such as photography played a role in providing frames to understand this new reality.

This made me wonder about the possible capacities of locative media. On the one hand, it uses an even more abstract way of representation of place: the grid of geometric coordinates provided by the gps signal. We find ourselves always at the center of this spatial universe, with the services we require mapped around us in concentric circles.

Through tracking software, statistics can be calculated in real time. They can be integrated in highly sophisticated and customisable data sets as those used in geodemographics. All our actions could easily be recorded, assembled in statistical sets, analyzed and fed back to us by means of lifestyle group labels such as ‘suburban optimists’, ‘aspiring hispanics’ or ‘hinterland families’. Will we identify with these new ways of ascribing identities, and thus expand the logic of the (data) set, yet in new ways?

Or, perhaps, will these capacities of new media technologies increasingly be used to sort the city for us? McQuire: ‘Public encounters with strangers are treated as increasingly problematic and control of the street has become part of a wider agenda to render urban space not only safe, but predictable.’

At the same time, it is possible to connect all these abstract coordinates with highly subjective interpretations and meanings. For instance through geoannoation software, or by connecting the objective reality of the grid with subjective experiences of a Flickr photostream. Through technological services, we can connect with absent friends and ‘broaden our horizon of social relations’ beyond those present nearby. McQuire calls this experience of place ‘relational space’. And ‘as urban structures cede priority to seemingly immaterial flows’, McQuire writes, ‘relational space has become the dominant experience of urban life.’

media no longer belong primarily to spatially bounded specialized sites such as the cinema, but are becmonig mobile and pervasive. Rather than a record of past events, digital media frequently provide instantaneous feedback in ‘real time’. Not only are social interactions routinely distributed across heterogeneous space-time frames, but mediation by complex technological systems has also become integral to social dynamics.

If postcards taught us to think of the city as a fragmented discontinuous environment without a master perspective, perhaps locative media can learn us to reconciliate the abstract world of globalization with more subjective experiences of place?

Yet, that is of course not an innocent matter of fact. If indeed the experience of the physical city cedes to our contact with absent others in relational space, what practices of inclusion and exclusion, of linkages and barriers will be involved in this process? Here McQuire warns us not to be too optimistic about current developments:

The problem is not simply the exposure of the previously private or the increased mediation of public space. Rather it is the all-too frequent reduction of the social uses of new media platforms to the possibilities dictated by commercial profit and loss. Failure to imagine new publics and new forms of privacy locks the relation between public and private into an unproductive structure of voyeurism and narcissism.

Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)